When a team member or any associate performs poorly, the problem is assumed to be the associate's fault, and the associate's responsibility. This is certainly true when the associate lacks the knowledge, skill, or even desire to perform the assigned tasks. Often, however, the associate's poor performance can result when others--such as team members, the team leader, their functional boss, or a member of upper management--perceives and treats the associate as an underperformer.
A self-fulfilling prophecy can have either a positive or negative effect. The associate may meet the great expectations of others in a Pygmalion syndrome or follow the low expectations created by a set-up-to-fail syndrome. Positive or negative, both syndromes will likely have a spiraling, self-reinforcing effect. Whether expectations are high or low, as they are continued they trigger more of the same behavior from the associate.
Important cues. Most of us tend to perceive others in terms of "good" or "bad," as having good or bad intentions, as responsible or irresponsible, as honest or dishonest, or as powerful or weak. Unfortunately, these nice packages are intangible, so we resort to discernible symbolic representatives of the characteristics: cues. Cues vary from individual to individual. Together, they form a lens through which we view or perceive others. Thus, the accuracy with which I perceive the real you is dependent upon the accuracy of the lens through which I view you. In other words, how well I read you depends upon how well the cues relate to reality and the relative weight that I give to each cue. Some cues are so important that they suggest an entire stereotype.
The first cues that most people notice about others are sex, age, race and physical appearance, including clothes. These cues are important in an interpersonal relationship because they form the lens that helps us determine another's goodness or badness, intentions, and relative power characteristics.
Picture this. For example, at your project-team's second meeting, only one person comes in late. He is inappropriately dressed and gives no reason for his tardiness. He has not completed his action item, and he does not contribute to the subsequent discussions. At this point, you assume that this associate will be a poor performer. As such, you now expect that he will be unmotivated and a minimal contributor. You expect him to avoid responsibility. These assumptions could easily develop into a self-reinforcing, set-up-to-fail syndrome, if the other team members also (view him as) a poor performer and treat him as such. He would be excluded from the "in-group," receive minimal communication, and, as time went on, he would in fact become a poor performer. These actions would lead to two obvious costs: first, the emotional cost to the associate and secondly, the organizational cost associated with the company's failure to enable his best contribution.
What if your team realized that the associate came from a vastly different culture and made an effort to integrate him into the team? Perhaps this member is the one most likely to make the technical breakthrough your project needs. Perhaps he had worked all night to verify his solution. He really wanted to contribute to the project but he ran out of time before proving his solution. During the meeting, he had difficulty focusing his thoughts on anything else.
Perhaps...! Or perhaps, he really was not up to the assigned task.
Ask the Manager
Q Why have corporate philosophy (or mission) statements emerged as a useful management tool?
A In the past, corporate philosophy (or mission) statements were usually given little credence. They were often viewed as collections of empty platitudes because they had little or no relationship to the "real world." Today, some organizations are struggling to move to flatter, more responsive network-type organizations. These firms find using mission statements improves organizational performance. The statements help guide individual, team, and corporate behavior and decisions, and they convey the organization's culture. The key is to align behavior policies and practices with a mission statement, since top-down direction is no longer appropriate for this task. The statement should use compelling, vivid prose. It should be easily grasped and remembered. It must be developed and communicated to raise everyone's awareness of the philosophy. It cannot be imposed from above. The firm must translate general policy statements into specific policies. The firm's reward systems must be compatible with (them), because over the long term, people tend to do what they are rewarded for, and stop doing what they are not rewarded for. Performance appraisals, training practices, and hiring processes should also reinforce these principles. If a firm's philosophy is "excellence through people," we would expect statements relating to positive employee behavior; employee empowerment; training and performance appraisal systems; emphasis on promotion from within; and selection of managers based upon competence in both people and technical skills.